The 3 Fs of cheese curds: fresh, fried and fancy

The city is full of great cheese curds

Wisconsin cheese curds – those delectable delicacies –  are part of our state’s definitional DNA the same way cheesesteaks define Philadelphia. No two cheese curds are exactly alike, but if we had to categorize them, they’d likely fall under one of three categories – fresh, fried or fancy. The list of places that serve top-notch curds is a long one in Madison, but if we had to choose, here are a few favorites.

FreshThe 3 Fs of cheese curds: fresh, fried and fancy

There’s literally nothing better than the soft, slick texture of a fresh cheese curd — well, except for the smooth, squeaky sound when you slide your chompers into one. Plenty of Wisconsin’s most prolific cheesemakers produce amazing bags of curds daily, but as with so many things, not all curds are created equal. Start with the cheddar curds at Carr Valley Cheese — not just because the cheddar is heavenly, but also because Carr Valley offers its own batter mix if you’d like to fry ’em up yourself. We know better than to forget the folks at Ehlenbach’s Cheese Chalet, who differentiate their cheddar curds with variety — 13 different types and flavors, including interesting options like bourbon barbecue and maple bacon. If you’ve been to a downtown farmer’s market anytime in the past decade, you might have walked away with a bag of Farmer John’s cheddar curds from John Dougherty’s Dodgeville plant — and you would have been glad you did.

FriedThe 3 Fs of cheese curds: fresh, fried and fancy

The fact that an upscale, farm-to-table establishment like Graze would prominently feature cheese curds on its appetizer menu tells you everything you need to know about curds’ position in the Wisconsin culinary firmament. Sure, chef Tory Miller’s curds are made by rolling award-winning Hook’s cheddar curds in a vodka batter, frying them smooth and pairing them with the smoothest ranch dressing you’ve ever sampled, but still. Over at Tipsy Cow, the cheddar curds are battered with something a little more quintessentially Wisconsin – New Glarus Spotted Cow lager – and crisply fried in smaller sizes that make them as easy to eat as popcorn. Remember those fresh Carr Valley curds we referenced in the fresh category? At Craftsman Table and Tap in Middleton, you can savor them two ways: battered in Surly Brewing Co.’s Helles Lager or camped on top of curry-sauced poutine. O, Canada. Most people who hit The Old Fashioned in downtown Madison end up tempted by one of that establishment’s rotating sets of Wisconsin cheese plates. But you can also find some of the best beer-battered cheese curds.

FancyThe 3 Fs of cheese curds: fresh, fried and fancy

Sure, cheese curds are perfectly delicious in their natural, squeaky state. But sometimes dressing them up yields unexpected pleasures. Like the tempura cheese curds at Tavernakaya, which are light and crispy chunks of smooth white cheddar that look an awful lot like they should be wrapped in nori. Instead, they’re dusted with togarashi chili powder and paired with spicy mayo. And OK, we know goat cheese isn’t technically a cheese curd, but that doesn’t stop us from savoring the fried chevre at Graft, where a gastrique of honey and black pepper make our sweet and savory dreams come true. Speaking of goat cheese, the puffs over at Middleton’s Longtable Beer Cafe might as well be curds, with Wisconsin’s own Montchevre Goat Cheese baked inside a sage-leavened fluffy puff pastry. Why quibble over terminology when it tastes this good?